Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Importance of Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson with Martin Luther King
Today is Jackie Robinson Day in Major League Baseball, and while Jackie Robinson's importance to Major League Baseball is recognized and understood, his importance to the American Civil Rights movement as a whole is largely overlooked.

Robinson was a lifetime Civil Rights advocate. Though he promised Dodgers GM Branch Rickey that he would "have the guts not to fight back" against the racist taunts and threats from white fans, players, and coaches, he spent his entire life fighting against racism. 

During his playing days, he proved racist expectations wrong again and again, performing at the highest level of the sport under 24/7 emotional siege. Robinson and his family were constantly targeted for harassment - somehow he not only survived that kind of stress, he led the league in multiple statistical categories.

Robinson's excellence in the previously all-white major leagues was a powerful symbol to Americans years before Brown vs. Board of Education began the slow process of school desegregation. His perseverance in the face of unspeakable bigotry served as an inspiration for thousands of people.

After retiring from baseball, Robinson wrote letters to several US presidents, urging them to take action against racism. He corresponded with Martin Luther King, and attended the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Robinson and his family at the March on Washington
Robinson was only 53 years old when he passed away in 1972. Just before his death, he attended the World Series, where he once again advocated for the breaking of barriers, urging MLB to employ more black people in coaching and management positions: "I'd like to live to see a black manager, I'd like to live to see the day when there's a black man coaching at third base." 

Sadly, Robinson didn't live to see that particular dream realized. He died much too young, and there's a lot of speculation that the extreme stress of his life contributed to his short lifespan

As I've done many times before in this space, I'm going to highly recommend Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy

As Red Sox fans, we have a responsibility to understand the kind of racism perpetuated by our team less than 70 years ago. The Red Sox were the very last team to integrate, twelve years after Robinson made his debut for the Dodgers. Boston had a reputation for being wholly unwelcoming to nonwhite players well into the 1990s. For more on this topic, I recommend It Was Never About the Babe: The Red Sox, Racism, Mismanagement, and the Curse of the Bambino, and Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston.

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